Japanese leader has stroke; acting prime minister named; Chief Cabinet secretary to fulfill Obuchi's duties until condition is known


TOKYO -- Japan's Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suffered a stroke yesterday, and his condition was considered serious enough that party leaders named an acting prime minister to fulfill his duties.

Mikio Aoki, the chief Cabinet secretary, was tapped to step into Obuchi's office temporarily. At a late morning news conference today, Aoki confirmed that Obuchi had suffered a stroke and was in intensive care and would likely be hospitalized for some time.

Leaders of Obuchi's ruling Liberal Democratic Party had kept the prime minister's condition virtually secret for most of yesterday. The 62-year-old prime minister was taken by private car to a hospital at 1 a.m. yesterday after complaining of fatigue and overwork.

Nothing was said for nearly 24 hours, but by this morning, news reports pinpointed the medical problem as a stroke that would sideline Obuchi for quite some time.

Medical sources quoted by the newspaper Asahi Shibun said fatigue may have triggered a stroke that "was not a little one."

Obuchi has a chronic heart condition and wears a pacemaker.

In the past few days, he has had to oversee emergency efforts to evacuate residents in the area of an erupting volcano in Hokkaido, make preparations for an international economy summit scheduled for July on the island of Okinawa, and manage a political breakup with a coalition partner.

He is also trying to manage a lackluster economy while gearing up for national elections that must be held by mid-October.

Obuchi was taken to the hospital a few hours after the Liberal Party, led by maverick Ichiro Ozawa, bolted from the ruling coalition, complaining that the Liberal Democratic Party had failed to live up to its commitments.

The government waited about 22 hours before announcing that Obuchi was in the hospital. The government apparently hoped that if Obuchi could return to work this morning, his absence would not be missed.

Top officials of the ruling party were not told until 11 a.m. yesterday, 10 hours after he was stricken, that the prime minister was ill. Early today, LDP leaders gathered in Tokyo to decide whether they needed to replace him.

Japanese newspapers were quick to compare Obuchi's condition to that of former Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, who was hospitalized before a summit conference in 1980. Doctors kept telling the media that Ohira was well, but he died of a stroke after 13 days in the hospital.

Obuchi's illness, if serious, could not only affect the timing of the national elections, but also the July summit of top industrial leaders scheduled in Okinawa.

Obuchi, dismissed as a "mediocrity" and "cold pizza" when he took office, made economic revitalization a centerpiece of his administration.

In recent weeks, however, his popularity has sagged as the economy has drifted, his coalition government has fractured and police agencies around the nation have been rocked by scandal.

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